You have got to be bloody kidding me, I thought to myself, staring at the scene in front of me with dawning horror.
Queen Lucinda, the Evil Queen, the Black Witch of Mareille, the Demoness of the Dark Wood, a woman I had been convinced was a creature of smoke and shadow, of darkness and deceit, was currently in the middle of her throne room.
Sitting on the floor.
Playing with a litter of kittens.
She was, simply put, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, with skin so pale and flawless it was luminescent, hair so black it shone like raven feathers, and eyes so green they sparkled like emeralds when the light hit them.
As I watched, my many eyes wide with disbelief, the queen dangled a piece of yarn over the head of the nearest kitten. It leapt at it like some sort of deranged fuzzball, falling over its own paws to disappear into the folds of Lucinda’s billowing skirts. She giggled at its antics and scooped it up to nuzzle it against her face. It closed its eyes and immediately started purring.
Oh, yes. She was evil all right. An absolute terror.
Seated beside her was her daughter, Princess Ivory, who was nearly a spitting image of the queen. “Can we keep them, Mama?” she asked. She had a musical voice that made her sound like she was on the verge of breaking into song, and the inherent goodness I sensed radiating from her was so strong that I bet she could charm a flock of birds into doing her morning chores by simply smiling at them.
“Of course, but we must name them first,” the queen said. She drew the kitten she held away from her face so that she could inspect him. “I think we should call this one Mittens, because he has the cutest little white feet, don’t you think?”
If I’d had hands, I would have buried my face in them.
“Oh, yes,” Ivory agreed, her smile nearly blinding in its brilliance. “And this one should be Spot, for the gray dot on his hindquarters.”
“Simon, Peter,” the queen called to her guards. “Come and say hello to the newest members of the royal household.”
The men smiled good-naturedly as they ambled over and squatted down on their haunches, their light armor creaking in protest.
“Here, Simon,” Lucinda said, handing the larger of the two men a squirming ball of orange fur. “And this one is for you, Peter.” She handed the smaller of the guards a little gray one that meowed pitifully until the man tucked it close to his chest.
“Marie has been begging for a kitten for ages,” he mumbled, stroking the cat’s fur.
The queen and the princess shared a conspiratorial glance, as if they had already known this.
“Well, then,” Ivory said. “I think it would give your daughter no small amount of joy if you brought that little guy home with you this evening.”
The man tried to protest. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly, Your Highness.”
“We insist,” said the queen, her smile making it impossible to deny her.
Peter’s sun-darkened face split into an answering grin. “Your Majesty is too kind.”
Yes. Yes, she really was.
My mother’s mother, known simply as Yaba in our household, had looked after me when my mother was away on assignment, and whenever I had acted up she would turn to her favorite cautionary tales to bring me back in line. They had all revolved around the Evil Queen doing Evil Things to Misbehaving Fairies. And they had scared the fairy dust out of me.
The kitten Lucinda held was now fast asleep in her arms, legs akimbo and head flopped over sideways, sleeping with the utter abandonment that only those new to this world can manage. The queen rocked him gently and began humming a lullaby.
Where was the demigoddess of darkness I had been warned about? Where was the tyrannical sadist who was known for pulling the wings off my kind?
“WHAT THE BLOODY BOLLOCKS IS GOING ON HERE???” I screamed. As a housefly, that scream was blessedly inaudibly.
A knock came from the door of the throne room, rousing the kittens. Lucinda placed hers ever so gently into the blanket-lined basket beside her and rose to her full height, smoothing over the invisible wrinkles in her cream-colored dress.
“Enter,” she called.
A young page poked his head in, and seeing the kittens, smiled.
I clenched my mandibles in annoyance. Of course he’s bloody smiling. It’s a bloody plague in this bloody castle.
“Your Majesty, Princess Ivory’s history tutor has just arrived.”
Ivory turned to her mother, her expression hopeful. “Can I take the kittens with me, Mama?”
“You may, but be sure not to let them interfere with your lessons.” A mischievous twinkle entered her eyes. “You know how Master Hammond dotes over baby animals.”
Ivory giggled. “I promise to keep him on task.”
Lucinda kissed her daughter on the forehead and sent her on her way, instructing the guards to ensure she got there safely.
If I had tear ducts, I would have started crying. Because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. Not even if it meant failing my assignment. Not even if it meant letting my mother down. And not even if it meant having my Fairy Godmother wings stripped away.
I had taken the long route to the capital of Mareille, bypassing the Dark Wood – because I was an intelligent fairy with a healthy recognition of my own mortality, and therefore had no desire to go anywhere near that bastion of Very Bad Things. On my way south through the country, I had visited several villages. On the whole, I found the Mareillians to be a boisterous, easy to smile, quick to laugh, proud, passionate, and friendly people. But most importantly, they were…happy. Happy in a way that I had never seen in my travels through Altoria. Happy in a way that redefined that word for me. The queen, it seemed, left them alone to see to their own affairs. Sure, there were royal representatives in each, but they mostly sat on the sidelines and let the village councils – made up of ten men and women each – make all the important decisions, only intervening if the council members couldn’t come to a consensus and their vote was needed to break a tie.
Village after village, it was the same. No fear. No suffering. No discontent. Everyone was just…happy. It was so disorienting that I’d even checked for enchantments, thinking they’d been spelled into a false sense of bliss. They hadn’t.
In the last few villages I passed through, I had even gone so far as to transform myself into my favorite human guise – the old crone – to eavesdrop on conversations at the taverns and local gathering halls. My plan had been to make inquiries into the queen, the current state of affairs of the country, its politics, etc. Only that hadn’t happened, for the moment the villagers had clapped eyes upon my travel-stained clothes and frail bones, they had sat me down near the fire and filled me with so much food I thought I might burst.
Acts of charity, it turned out, was another common trait of Mareillians.
By the time I had reached the royal castle, I had begun to question everything I knew. This charming little scene was the final straw. The people were happy. The queen, if she was evil, hid it so well that I couldn’t sense it. The princess was an innocent, kind-hearted young woman with so much love in her soul, I couldn’t stand the thought of James’ darkness staining it. So he was nice to animals and didn’t hit women. So what? There just wasn’t enough buried goodness in that prince to make him worthy of the young woman I watched leave the throne room, the basket of kittens cradled carefully in her arms. She even altered the way she walked so she wouldn’t jostle them.
Resigned to return home and hand in my resignation, I heaved a sigh and lifted myself into flight, turning toward the open window. I flew face first into an invisible force just a few scant inches away from it, hitting the barrier so hard that it knocked me a little wonky for a few seconds, just long enough for me to fall out of the air.
And land in Lucinda’s outstretched palm.